Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 21: 1-21 The Promised Son

What makes you laugh? Perhaps you’ve got a favourite comedian, someone you enjoy watching, and the stories they tell (and the way they tell them) brings you to laughter. Maybe there’s a programme you watch and it’s always funny. Or perhaps you remember the stories told by people ceilidhing round the country. It’s always dangerous to tell a joke from the pulpit, but here goes. This was judged to be the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year (from Tim Vine):"I've decided to sell my Hoover… well, it was just collecting dust."

In our reading this morning, we find lots of laughing. But to fully appreciate it, we need to remember where we’ve come from. Way back in Genesis 12, God had called Abraham to leave his family and his country and go to a place God would show him. God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing. That was 25 years ago. Abraham made it to the place, the promised land, but he still doesn’t own any of it. The promised son didn’t seem to be coming, so Sarah had given her slave girl Hagar to Abraham to help things along. Ishmael had been born, but God continued to say that the promised son would be born. Through this son of promise, Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.

After twenty-five long years of faith and doubt; questions and struggles; we come to chapter 21. And in verse 1, we find the fulfillment of all we’ve been waiting for since September. ‘The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.’ What the Lord said, he did. The long longed-for son was born.

Isaac had arrived. Now Isaac means ‘he laughs’, and he is the cause of plenty of laughter. Isaac brings laughter because he is the sign that God is faithful. As if we could have forgotten, these verses remind us that what was impossible, God has made possible. Abraham was in his old age (at 100!), and Sarah was 90.

Look at verse 6: ‘Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ God is the source of this laughter, because God is the one who brings joy. God is the one who keeps his word, who fulfills his promises, who brings about the things that were impossible. It’s a cause for celebration, and this laughter is infectious!

The Psalms pick up on this celebration: ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.’ (Psalm 126: 1-2) Have you ever been caught up with this sense of joy, this infectious laughter because of what God has done for you? In this life, we get tasters of it, but it’s just a foretaste of eternity in God’s presence.

Just think of all the promises God will fulfill for you, sins forgiven, wholeness and healing, a new resurrection body, no more sin, no more suffering - how could you not laugh when all this is fulfilled? You might not be in the place of laughter right now, but if you’re trusting in Christ, then hold on, weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Laughter is infectious. One person laughing can cause a whole room to giggle. One person’s joy can transform a room. But laughing isn’t always welcome. In verse 8, we’ve fastforwarded from Isaac’s birth to his weaning day. It’s a big family occasion, just like a child’s birthday, marking another step in this precious life. In verse 10, it looks like his half-brother is being helpful - Ishmael is playing with Isaac. But other versions say that he was laughing.

Now, I don’t need to tell you that there’s a difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone. Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian is laughing at her son Isaac. Never mind the fact that Sarah was responsible for this in the first place, now she is raging.

It’s like Eastenders or something like that, as Sarah tells Abraham to ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ Hagar and her son were useful to have around so long as God’s promise seemed impossible. But now we have Isaac, we don’t need them. It’s a sunrise showdown, as Abraham sends away his slave and his son.

God confirms that Isaac is the promised offspring, that his is the line that counts for God to ultimately fulfil all his promises. But look how gracious God is, promising to also make a name of Ishmael, because he is Abraham’s son.

So Hagar and the boy are sent away. (Did you notice that Ishmael isn’t actually named in this chapter? He’s always the boy, the child, the son... The contrast between him and Isaac is sharp and clear). Hagar and the boy set off with bread and water, but in the wilderness, water doesn’t last long. She has nowhere to go. She’s wandering about with her boy. So she leaves the boy to die under a bush. But she cries out to God ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’

God hears, and God answers. We saw that back in chapter 16, when God saw Hagar in her distress. God sees, and God hears, and even rejected Hagar isn’t too far from God for him to hear and answer.

When we read of this early soap with family troubles and laughter, you might be thinking, what has this got to do with me? In Galatians, the apostle Paul takes this very passage to show the Christians that they are in this story. The Christians in Galatia were believing in Jesus, but some Jews were coming and saying that they also had to submit to the whole Old Testament tradition and law, and especially circumcision if they wanted to be real true Christians. They were saying that to be a real Christian, you first had to become a real Jew.

But Paul takes this passage and says that there are two sorts of children of Abraham. There are the children of slavery, bound to the slavery to the law - the Jews; and there are children of the promise.

Christians are the children of the promise. We have been brought into Abraham’s family through a work of God, just as unexpected and unbelievable as the birth of Isaac. Only God could have brought us in, through Jesus. We are the children of the promise because of the promised Son.

Everything we have comes about through this birth of Isaac, which led eventually to the coming of an even greater promised Son. It’s great to reach this point on the first Sunday of Advent, as we see the connection between the promise (which can take a long time to fulfil) and the coming of the son.

So even if things are difficult for you today. Even if it looks like God is distant and not answering. Even if it seems that God is slow to keep his promise. The promise will be fulfilled. Remember that you are children of the promise, brought into the family by a miracle work of God. And that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Laughter is on its way, as we rejoice in God’s promise and salvation through the promised Son.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th November 2014.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 18:16 - 19:38 Saved from Sodom

Some places come with automatic associations - you hear the name, and immediately you think of what they’re famous for. If I mentioned Las Vegas, you’d probably think of the casinos. Sydney, the opera house. London might make you think of Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament. We quickly make connections with places. And if you were to hear the names Sodom and Gomorrah, you’re probably quick to link it to sin.

This morning we come to perhaps the most difficult passage in Genesis, as we deal with Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. It’s quite a long chunk, so we may not get to deal with everything in as much detail as we would like, but let’s look at the fall of those cities, and the one small family who were rescued.

Our reading begins at the end of the meal in last week’s passage. Abraham and Sarah entertained the LORD and two angels to dinner, and received the promise of a son, Isaac. The men get up from dinner, and head towards Sodom.

The LORD starts speaking - almost as if he’s thinking to himself, but it’s for Abraham’s benefit. The LORD is on his way to see for himself if the outcry about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin is as bad as it sounds. The judge is on his way. The court is in session. Now, the LORD already knows all about sin, but he says it so that Abraham hears and is spurred to action.

From verse 32, Abraham comes to the LORD and asks, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?... Far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked... Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?’

God, you are holy. God, you cannot abide sin. But is it right to punish everyone, the good and the bad? Surely that would be worse! So the LORD concedes that for the sake of fifty righteous people, he’ll not destroy the city. Abraham, having started, then gets into a reverse auction, a bit of haggling - for 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?

Abraham knows that his nephew Lot lives in the city. He’s pleading for Lot’s wellbeing. He’s asking for mercy. He’s praying for grace. The LORD is gracious, he already knew what he was going to do, but he involves Abraham. He tells him what’s going to happen to spur Abraham to action. Abraham’s prayer comes from a desire for people. How earnest are our prayers on behalf of others? When we see people in the sights of God’s justice, do we cry out for them? Do we care if family members are in the path of destruction?

The Judge of the earth will do what is right - he will bring judgement on sin. We want that when others hurt us - but are we ready for judgement ourselves? Is it really justice we want for ourselves? Or do we want mercy?

While Abraham is on the mountain with the LORD, the two angels have arrived in Sodom. Lot meets them at the city gates, at the place of trade and justice, the place where the elders of the town met. He brings them to his home, fearing what would happen if they were to spend the night in the square. His fears are realised when every man of the town arrives at his door. They want the men to come out ‘so that we may know them.’ They don’t just want to talk. They want to act wickedly.

The sinfulness of sin is seen in Sodom. Lot tries to appease the crowd by giving them his two daughters. They desire sin, they’re slaves to it. The reports are true enough. They know they are acting wickedly, but they refuse to listen or stop. They despise Lot for standing apart from them. The sinfulness of their sin is clear.

And it’s so easy to stand and point a finger at them. To read the passage and think - oh yes, they had it coming to them. They weren’t living God’s way. It’s so easy to look at other people and see their sinfulness. But do we realise the extent of our own sin? It may not be the same type of sin, but the sin in our life is just as serious, and is also due for judgement.

The Judge of all the earth will do what is just - he will judge and punish those who are wicked. That included Sodom, but it also includes us and our sin too. We need to be rescued from judgement, just as Lot was here, in our third point.

Lot is told of the destruction. He goes to warn his sons-in-law to bring them out, but they think he’s joking. They refuse to hear the warning and means of rescue. The next morning, Lot, Mrs Lot and the two girls are lingering, as if they don’t want to leave, but look at verse 16. The Lord was merciful to him, taking them by the hand and getting them out. There’s more kindness when Lot reckons he couldn’t make it to the hills, he could only get to Zoar. So the angel agrees. Lot is brought out safely. He escapes the judgement that was about to fall.

We find the explanation in verse 29. ‘God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow’. What does it mean, that God remembered Abraham? Why not God remembered Lot?

It brings us back to Abraham’s prayer to the LORD at the end of chapter 18. ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’ The bargaining didn’t save the cities - not even ten righteous people could be found there. But there was one righteous man.

Lot was a sinner like all his neighbours in Sodom central. He too deserved the wrath of God for his sins. But Lot was a righteous man, as Peter tells us in our second reading. That doesn’t mean he was perfect. We can see that in the passage where he offers his daughters to the mob; and when he gets drunk and submits to his daughters in the cave. He was far from perfect. But he was righteous because he was trusting in God, he was in a right relationship with God. Only he and his family were brought out - and even then, Mrs Lot looked back, already missing the pleasures of Sodom, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

Sodom and Gomorrah stands as a taste of God’s just judgement. Peter says that they are an example of what is coming to the ungodly. The horror of sulphur and fire is a sign of the eternal punishment of the wicked. It’s what we all truly and justly deserve.

But we don’t have to face the judgement. The good news is that Jesus has stood in our place. He himself took the full force of God’s wrath; he endured our hell, so that we might receive his heaven. Jesus is in the rescue business, and will rescue us if we call on him.

It’s a heavy message today, a solemn message. Will we hear the warning and scoff like Lot’s sons-in-law? Or will we find rescue through the righteousness of Christ, as we take refuge in him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd November 2014.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Remembrance Day Sermon: Revelation 7: 9-17 Out of the Great Tribulation

One of the overwhelming facts that confront us each year around Remembrance Day is the sheer scale of loss. In this centenary year, the Tower of London is hosting a visual representation of the losses in World War One. Have you seen the sea of red, each ceramic poppy representing one of the 888,246 British soldiers who lost their life in the Great War. Each one an individual, a father or brother or son; daughter, sister, mother.

While the First World War might seem remote and distant Remembrance Day also comes closer to home. We remember those whom many of us knew and loved and lost. The pain remains, the loss still real. Does the Bible have anything to say to us about those we have lost? Is there any hope or encouragement for us?

This morning, we turn to the book of Revelation, that strange and not always easy book at the very end of the Bible. This is a revelation of Jesus Christ, given to the apostle John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos. Jesus tells him to write what he sees to the seven churches of Asia Minor, churches facing trouble and persecution. Throughout the book, we’re given an overview of history, as God’s people and God’s enemies are lined up against each other.

One of the most amazing photos I’ve ever seen was taken during President Obama’s Inauguration in January 2013. Using 305 high resolution photographs, a very detailed picture of the huge crowd present on the day is available on the Washington Post website. You can zoom in to see who was there, who was yawning, who was sleeping. [You can see it here]

In chapter 7, John is shown a great multitude. This is a huge crowd of people - so many that no one could number them. John takes in all the details, but he doesn’t understand them. There’s people from every tribe and people and language. Every nationality is represented. They’re standing before the throne and before the Lamb. That is, they’re in the heart of heaven. They’re all wearing the same thing- white robes; and they’re all holding the same thing- palm branches. They’re all crying the same thing- ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

They’re joined by the angels and the elders and the four living creatures. John had already seen all the rest earlier in chapter 4 and 5, but the crowd is new. They weren’t there earlier, but now they are. It’s a bit of a mystery. is it like a flashmob, where people are going about their business in a shopping centre and then suddenly someone starts singing, and a choir appears out of nowhere, and then disappears again afterwards? Who are these people? Where did they come from? They’re all dressed the same, shouting the same. If they had red scarves and T-shirts on, we might recognise them as Liverpool supporters. But white robes and palm branches?

Have you ever known someone who asks you a question because they know the answer? Perhaps that’s something that happens in school. The teacher asks something you haven’t done before. They know the answer, and they know you don’t know the answer. They ask the question so that you have to say, I don’t know! That’s what’s going on in verse 13. John is watching all this happen before him. He doesn’t know who the crowd are. Then one of the elders asks him: ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ Sir, you know - because I don’t!

Here’s what the elder says: ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.’ The great tribulation is the war between God and his enemies. This crowd from every nation has died serving God. They have washed their robes and made them white... but not in Daz or Bold. Look at what has made the white robes white - the blood of the Lamb. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? One red sock in the wash turns your whites pink. But the dirty robe washed in the blood of the Lamb comes out spotless and white. The elder is showing that this crowd has trusted in the Lord Jesus; they depend on his blood shed for them at the cross; this is their hope, their means of pardon and peace.

The blood of Jesus is our only means of hope. Do you see the connection between verses 14 and 15? It is only those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb who ‘therefore...’

This is the present reality for those who have died trusting in Christ. They are with God. ‘Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.’ It’s what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians - ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ Even though they may have been taunted in life - where is your God? In death, they are with him, as near as could be, seeing him face to face.
As well as being with God, there is also nothing they lack. ‘They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.’ In life, they may have suffered hunger or thirst; gathered before the throne there is no lack. All this is possible because ‘the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Have you ever seen some of those award shows? Up front are the celebrities with their meal and wine, waiting to hear if their name will be called out. And back, very far back, out of camera view, are the ordinary people, desperate to get a glimpse of their favourite actor or musician. Sometimes we might think that heaven is like that - all the famous and important Christians have a ringside seat, while we might just get into the very back row, just in through the door, not getting near the action.

But verse 17 shows us the personal nature of heaven. The Lamb is the one who shepherds, guiding to springs of living water. Jesus himself is the shepherd, not just in this life, but even in glory. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. It’s as if God has the Kleenex tissues out, wiping away every tear. It’s God who removes suffering and ushers us into his presence.

What an encouragement this would have been for John’s first readers. People from their church, people they knew well, had been killed as martyrs. It’s as if John scans the crowd like that picture of Obama’s inauguration and shows them where they are: safe, secure, God’s gathered people, shepherded by Christ, in white robes of purity and joy.

There is comfort here for us. Our loved ones, found in Christ, are also found in this picture. They too are safe and secure with Christ. We may experience loss, but they are at home with the Lord. Perhaps when grief overwhelms us, it would be good to read this passage again and read about where our loved ones are... They are before the throne of God...

And what about us. What of you? In the great tribulation there are only two sides. The side of God or his enemies. To come over to the side of God is to repent, be washed in the blood of Jesus, to trust in his sacrifice. It’s only in Jesus that our robes can be white, and our future bright. As the crowd cries out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Remembrance Day Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th November 2014.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 17: 1-27 Covenant Confirmed

On Hallowe’en night there were quite a lot of fireworks whizzing and banging and popping in the night sky. Some places have large firework demonstrations which go on for quite a while, every second there’s something new to catch your eye - and maybe even set up to explode in time with the music. That might be how we see the Bible - lots of great things, all very exciting, but you quickly move on to the next bit. And that’s how we imagine it must have been for Abram. All these times when God speaks - how amazing!

The reality, though, seems to be far less exciting, and more like a home made fireworks display. Forget Belfast or Derry, or even Enniskillen. One Hallowe’en I went to a friend’s house, where they had one tube stuck in the back field, from which one single firework was fired every five minutes or so. By the time they got one out of the box, arranged it in the tube, got the fuse straightened out, fumbled with the lighter, instead tried to use the damp matches, and eventually let one off, it wasn’t just as exciting.

As we read about the life of Abram in Genesis, we might think that it’s a non stop rollercoaster ride of God speaking in chapter 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and now 17. But look closer and you discover that the times when God spoke to Abram were rare. Chapters 12-15 all came in quick succession. Chapter 16 happened ten years later. That was when Abram and Sarai had thought that God wasn’t able to keep his promise and needed a helping hand by way of the slave girl Hagar and her son Ishmael.

We jump from chapter 16 to 17 so easily, but the wee white space in between those two lines represents 13 years of getting on with ordinary life. Just think back to 2001. Think of the changes since then. Ishmael the baby is now 13. Abram is now 99. The word of the LORD is rare. God hasn’t spoken for ages. And then he appears. He speaks. ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ And once again, God renews the covenant with Abram.

[I’m sure you’ve seen those red letter Bibles - where the words of Jesus are in red. If the words that God speaks were in red here, almost the whole chapter would be red. But then we don’t need the red, it is all God’s word anyway!!!]

As we look at what God says, we discover that he speaks of four different people, and how they relate to his purposes. We’ll look at each of them in turn. So first up, ‘As for me’ (4). We expect God to talk about himself, but actually, he speaks mostly about Abram. How Abram will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. how Abram will be exceedingly fruitful; how Abram and his descendants will have the land. Abram is also to get a new name - the exalted father Abram will now be father of a multitude, AbrAHam.

Those promises we’ve seen before are enlarged and expanded. It’s in the promise that we see how this is ‘As for me’ - God. You see, God is the one who makes the promise, the covenant. All the way through God says, ‘I will...’ - Abraham isn’t going to manage this by himself. It’s only by God’s gracious promises. And it all flows from a relationship with God - ‘I will be God to you.’ ‘I will be their God.’

In verse 9, the focus changes. ‘As for you’ - Abraham. As the sign of the covenant, God commands Abraham to begin circumcision - not just on himself, but on everyone in his house, and everyone who will become part of his house. At eight days old, baby boys are to receive the sign. The removal of a portion of skin is the sign that they themselves are not cut off from God’s people. You see that principle in verse 14. To not be circumcised is to be cut off from God’s people by breaking the covenant.

The focus then shifts again, to Sarai, Abraham’s wife. She too is to get a new name - Sarah. She too is to be blessed - by the birth of a son, and by the promise of nations and kings coming from her descendants.

At this point, it seems that it’s just too difficult to believe. After all, surely Sarah would have had a better chance of producing a son when she was younger. Why now? Back in verse 3 Abram had fallen on his face in worship. But now in verse 17 it’s as if he falls on his face in hysterics. He laughed and said, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?’ It’s laughable! Imagine Sarah and Abraham going to look at prams and cots. The shop assistant asks if they’re for their new grandchild or great grandchild? No, we’re going to be the parents...

It would be far easier for God to work with what Abraham has already tried. ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight.’ We’ve already got him, God, couldn’t we just work things out that way? But God is firm - Sarah will bear the son, Isaac (he laughs), and the covenant will be through him. Ishmael will be blessed, but he’s a dead-end when it comes to the promise being fulfilled.

Imagine that God hadn’t spoken to you for thirteen years. Then he suddenly appears with the confirmation of the covenant - and the word of circumcision. How would you respond? What would you make of it?

Perhaps quite a few men would think to themselves, just hold on a minute. You want me to do what? But Abraham gets up and does it - Ishmael, all the slaves, and Abraham himself, ‘that very day.’ In fact, Moses tells us twice that it happened in those verses. What God says, he does.

You might be wondering to yourself why don’t we practice circumcision these days? If this is an eternal covenant in every generation; if we look to Father Abraham, how come we don’t do this now? Abraham was promised offspring. From that earliest moment, he heard the good news of Jesus. Jesus is the greater promised son, who perfectly fulfils every promise God made in the Old Testament. Jesus himself was circumcised in obedience to the command, as we’re told in Luke 2:21.

But Paul goes on to show how Jesus completes the promise in a greater and deeper way. You see, Jesus was himself cut off as he died on the cross. Our sins were on him as he died, so that we can live to God through faith in him. The New Testament sign of the covenant is no longer circumcision; it is now baptism - the sign of bring united with Christ in his death and his resurrection.

Our sins are gone. The record of wrongs was nailed to the cross. It is paid in full. The law has been fulfilled. We live to Christ. The power of sin has been broken. We stand in the fulfilment of the promise through Jesus Christ. Today, as we approach the Lord’s table, we take refuge in this everlasting covenant. ‘I will be their God’ is the promise to Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and in Revelation, where this eternal covenant finds its final fulfilment in the new Jerusalem.

God’s promise is forever - to be held on to every ordinary day until we get to that day. So don’t lose heart.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd November.